Amid ongoing protests over police brutality and killings of Black people, “war zone” actions against demonstrators on the street and calls in some corners for Mayor Jenny Durkan to step down, the Seattle City Council vowed Monday to carve into the Police Department’s budget and completely rethink how to ensure public safety.
Three council members — Kshama Sawant, Teresa Mosqueda and Tammy Morales — now are asking Durkan to resign or consider resigning as Seattle grapples with protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Hearing Floyd call out for his mother motivated Mejia Austin, a 41-year-old Black mother of two sons, to show up with a protest sign Monday night on Capitol Hill.
“We’re hurting, deeply,” she said. In a crowd in front of police wearing gas masks and holding batons, Austin stood with her mother and three nieces, including Maniyah Austin, 18.
“I have a brother,” Maniyah Austin said. “I don’t want him to be next.”
As many voices inside and outside City Hall condemn the Durkan administration for responding to mostly nonviolent demonstrations with chemical agents and blast balls, all nine council members during a briefing Monday indicated they wanted to take steps to demilitarize Seattle’s police.
They seemed particularly united on a desire to outlaw tear gas, discussing the issue the day after that substance was again deployed against a crowd near the Police Department’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill, despite the mayor’s pledge Friday to halt its use.
“It is absolutely unacceptable to turn one of our densest neighborhoods … into looking like a complete war zone, night after night,” Council President M. Lorena González said.
“What we’re hearing … right now is that our residents do not feel safe in our own city from police,” Mosqueda added.
Sawant, who was in the crowd Sunday night when the police unleashed tear gas and flash-bang grenades, said Durkan and police Chief Carmen Best must answer for the barrage.
“All the movement was demanding was, ‘Let us march,’ because these are our streets,” Sawant said.
In a departure from her daily routine during last week’s protests, Durkan held no public events and issued no comments Monday.
She and Best apologized Sunday for instances in which they said officers may have failed to deescalate tense moments, or used disproportionate force against demonstrators. They also asked protesters to do more to quell violence, blaming bad actors within crowds for inciting clashes.
Also Sunday, Durkan said she would freeze spending on police technology, weapons, vehicles and buildings until after more dialogue with protesters and community members, and she promised to identify $100 million in budget allocations for community needs. That money won’t necessarily come from reductions to the Police Department’s budget, she said.
In quick remarks to reporters Monday afternoon, Best said the Police Department would board up windows and apply fire retardants at the East Precinct while removing barricades “as feasible” and “decreasing our footprint” in the vicinity.
She described those moves as “an exercise in trust and deescalation,” though she said the Police Department would not be “abandoning or evacuating” the building. Hundreds gathered again Monday evening in the area, marching around the precinct and gathering directly in front of its boarded-up front door.
Best said the 30-day ban on tear gas that she and Durkan announced Friday included exceptions for SWAT officers and “life safety” issues. She said the weapon was needed Sunday night because rocks, bottles and lasers were aimed at officers, and there were reports of a man with a gun in the area.
“The conditions here aren’t good” for anyone, Seattle Police Officer Guild President Mike Solan told TV news crews near the East Precinct, asking for “a reasonable discussion” about race relations and blaming “a small group of criminal actors” among people rightfully protesting Floyd’s killing.
“I cannot stand here anymore and not watch, not hear city leadership protect my members from this violence,” Solan said. “We’ve been told that our officers must remove some of our riot gear … I’m inundated with emails from my membership and their friends and family that are concerned.”
Sawant said she planned to introduce a bill that would prohibit all crowd-control weapons, including tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls, bean bag guns, water cannons and sound-related weapons. A vote on that bill could happen as soon as June 15, she said.
Mosqueda, who chairs the council’s budget committee, meanwhile promised to lead an “inquest” into the Police Department’s budget. She said that work would begin this week and would respond to a “defunding” push by some protesters to have 50% of Seattle’s police spending redirected to community-based programs and services.
Durkan is preparing to propose midyear budget changes this week as she and the council deal with tax revenue streams that dried up during the city’s coronavirus economic shutdown. Seattle’s spending must be police-reprioritized in a transformational way, Mosqueda said, mentioning a pledge by a majority of Minneapolis City Council members to do just that.
“We need,” she said, “to invest in Black-led organizers and organizations creating change.”
The Police Department’s budget has climbed upward over time to more than $400 million this year, accounting for about a quarter of Seattle’s general-funding spending.
All of Mosqueda’s colleagues said they would support a deep dive into police spending and the reallocation of at least some of it, though only Councilmembers Sawant and Morales joined her in committing to cutting the Police Department’s budget by as much as 50%.
“We have to commit as policymakers to asking ourselves some really important questions,” Morales said. “What does a world with no police look like? How do we redefine safety? … What does it mean to invest in Black lives?”
González agreed in principle, saying she’d lost faith in incremental reforms. “I have now come to a place where I believe you cannot fix what appears to be fundamentally broken,” she said.
The approach drew immediate pushback from Solan. “We’re already underfunded … and if you remove a significant amount of money in the Police Department, there’s going to be an explosion of crime,” he said.
Sawant for years has been proposing cuts to the Police Department’s budget to pay for social services, only to be voted down by her colleagues, she noted.
The same three council members now backing major Police Department reductions also are turning up the pressure on Durkan. Sawant issued a statement Saturday calling on the mayor to resign, citing a petition launched by some local Democratic Party leaders Friday that has collected more than 11,000 signatures.
She threatened to press for Durkan’s removal, via council vote.
When asked about Sawant’s statement Sunday, the mayor said she wouldn’t be distracted by a “political ploy.” Rather than “fan division,” Durkan has said Seattle leaders should instead focus on “actual steps” to heal from the COVID-19 pandemic, improve policing and address inequities in all spheres, including education, housing and jobs.
Mosqueda added her voice Monday, saying Durkan should in the current moment, “Ask herself if she’s the right leader and resign.” So did Morales, saying “perhaps it’s time for her to consider resigning.”
UFCW 21, which represents supermarket workers in Seattle and is one of the area’s largest unions, also called for Durkan to resign Monday.
“A mayor who allows for the use of weapons of war against her own community cannot remain in office and cannot lead on critical changes needed for public safety,” UFCW 21 said in a news release.
Councilmember Debora Juarez agreed to join in seeking Police Department cuts. She also recommended caution, saying, “I don’t want to jump into, ‘Let’s recall the mayor, let’s get rid of the Police Department.’ “
During a council meeting later Monday, public commenters recounted their terror at being attacked by police with crowd-control weapons, while others described watching in horror as others were assaulted, mentioning flash-bang grenades fired at a volunteer medic tent where treatment was in progress.
“In in the space of eight minutes … I counted over 100 explosive devices,” one commenter told the council. Another said she was pepper-sprayed so badly she had to be hospitalized.
Many commenters called on the council to defund or abolish the Police Department, to invest in community-led programs and to force Durkan out, citing not only the protests but decades of police brutality against Black people in Seattle.
“SPD cannot be reformed and cannot be contained,” another commenter said. “SPD must be destroyed.”
Several commenters also spoke out against the Police Department’s handling of a man who drove toward a Capitol Hill demonstration Sunday night, shot a protester and then breached a barricade to reach a line of officers.
The police took the man into custody without violence but subsequently loosed military-style weapons on the crowd, they said. Best said she did not have answers Monday about how officers treated the shooter.
Still other commenters decried the tear gas seeping into, explosions reverberating around and menacing officers occupying the blocks near their Capitol Hill homes.
“Tear-gassing has been getting into my apartment and causing health issues,” said a commenter recovering from COVID-19 who described seeing people throwing up on the street “from exposure to these weapons.”
At its meeting, council members voted unanimously to pass a resolution, sponsored by Councilmember Andrew Lewis, rejecting potential U.S. military interventions in Seattle.
They also signed a letter, drawn up by Councilmember Lisa Herbold, asking City Attorney Pete Holmes to withdraw the city’s legal challenge against new rules for King County inquests into police killings. That challenge has prevented inquests into multiple recent killings from moving forward.